On Living In Asia And A Different Notion of ‘Freedom’

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured "hazardous for all groups," not just children and old people.

Daughter Eva, on a day when pollution in Seoul measured “hazardous for all groups,” not just children and old people.

Before I moved to Asia, my notion of freedom largely existed in the realm of figurative freedom, that is, to live in the moment and be free of worry about what was next, or what was buzzing over on my smartphone. How to live freely was notional — a mental freedom, because the other kinds were a given.

A year into this Asian life, my entire construct of freedom has changed. The areas where freedom was default — the freedom to breathe without endangering my health, the freedom to browse the Internet without hitting walls, the freedom to speak and be understood, are no longer a given.

I have come to know the challenge of not having a common language in which to communicate with sources, and just in everyday life. Korea and Japan, my coverage areas, are famously homogenous societies. In Korea, the number of “foreigners” living here is three percent. My Korean interpreter is excellent, but there is a certain captivity when having to speak through someone else’s voice; something I never understood so clearly until living this way for the past year. Would I be able to get that one interview if I were expressing myself properly, or if there were a way to do nuance when speaking through a proxy? Is there just an entire world that could be unlocked to us if we could understand what the hell was going on around us?

It is my job to monitor North Korea, but North Korean sites are more accessible from the firewalled Chinese internet than they are in Seoul, where South Korea blocks North Korean news and information sites under a Cold War-era national security law, a holdover from the time of fear that communist ideology would creep south of the border. Getting on trusted Western news sites in China, meanwhile, makes you long for the dial-up internet speeds of the early 1990s. VPNs can help, but only so long as the Chinese censors don’t kick you off of them just as you’re getting connected.

The environment. Each morning my first phone check is not for the news or my emails but instead, the levels of the harmful, invisible particulate matter, PM2.5, to decide whether I can exercise outdoors, or whether the baby gets to go out on a walk in the afternoon. On many days this year, the levels have been too high for my girls to go outdoors. “The air is bad today” coming out of the mouth of a three-year-old is quietly heartbreaking. The hacking cough sounds of a baby are even worse.

In March, my husband, daughters and my parents stayed for a long weekend in Okinawa after I finished up some reporting there. The six of us were walking to dinner (we had found a Red Lobster in Japan and I’ve never met a chain restaurant I didn’t love). My mom and my older daughter, Eva, disappeared for a few minutes. Later when they caught up with us my mom told me they had come upon a steep grassy hill and young Japanese kids were rolling down the hill. Eva found it puzzling and delightful. She tried to do it, but it took her a few attempts before she could figure it out — the girl had never rolled down a hill before, because she hasn’t grown up around enough grass or hills to do so, nor does she get to play outside that much. I was aghast; I grew up a tomboy in the suburbs, playing in creeks in the summertime and sledding down neighborhood slopes when it snowed.

This kind of existence has made me value small, yet huge, freedoms I never thought about before, and consider them more fully when deciding what to do next. Millions of people in China and India’s megacities have it far worse when it comes to pollution, and millions of children are growing up breathing the same air my children would breathe if I moved to, say, Shanghai, for a couple of years. But, I have a choice; many of their parents do not have the same choice. 99 percent of the time my parenting philosophy is kids are adaptable and flexible; they can easily fold into their families’ lives. But I feel like pollution and lifelong lung capacity falls in the one percent of instances where I should adapt to what they need, first.

Internet hassles and lost in translation moments are sort of the pleasures of a job as a foreign correspondent, challenges that shape you and mold you, over time. I find pollution far more pernicious because its effects may not be known for awhile, if ever. The privileges of my life and work so far mean I’ve never had a “I can’t have it all” moment until now. I think this is it. I want kids who get to go outside and to cover arguably the biggest global story right now. The former has outweighed the latter.

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My Morning Routine Doesn’t Exist

I am continuing my quest to keep up this blog by picking random writing prompts from this list.

This is my morning routine, as of the past few months: Wake up around 6am to the sound of Baby Isabel murmuring and cooing in her crib. She never cries when she wakes up, she just says some stuff like, “Nnnnhn, breh, muhh, arrehh” and occasionally, “Mamamamamamamama.”

She sleeps behind us in a walk-in closet, because we’re space-limited and her sister Eva hasn’t warmed to the idea of letter her sister share a room with her yet. Anyway.

After I let Isa make her noises for a good 10 minutes so that I can slowly wake up, I or Matty go get her, and then I plant her face on my boob for feeding. She gulps down one boob, then switches to the other all while both of us are half asleep. Then I pass her off to Matty, who will burp and return her to her crib for anywhere between 10 minutes to an hour. The reason the timing is not exact is because Isa is consistently awakened later in the morning by her own poop (cause who wants to sleep with poop on their ass) or her sister. Each morning, once the sun is brightly shining, we hear the thud-thud-thud-thud-thud of three-year-old Eva, whose footsteps slow as they approach the master bedroom. She creeps in quietly wearing a mischievous grin, and knowing full well that we’re going to tell her not to wake her sister. (She always ends up somehow waking her sister.)

Then Matty does Eva’s morning get-ready-for-school routine, Isabel gets handed off to our helper, Yani, and I go back to sleep. At least I try. This is only somewhat successful depending on whether Eva decides she only wants me to do her hair before school in the morning, and what I find in my email. If I get some sort of email that wakes my brain, I’m up for the day. If neither a hair nor email incident happens, I sleep until about 9:30am.

It sounds hellish but I keep thinking that someday I will miss this routine.

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Goodbye To My Dog

Saidee, at nearly 17 years old.

November 30, 1998 — September 27, 2015. Pictured here is Saidee at nearly 17 years old.

Update: Saidee left us on Sunday. Eva led her on her leash to a private van, which my assistant arranged for the ride to a compassionate vet, who gave us lots of time to say goodbye. Saidee died in my arms, at nearly half her normal weight after stopped being able to keep any food down. She knew we loved her, but more importantly, she was loving us — licking us — to the very end.

I am sitting here on my bed with my baby cooing at me and my dog in the other room. I am quite certain my dog is about to die.

We lived off Legacy Drive in Plano, Texas 17 years ago, when Saidee joined us as a puppy. My best friend Erin and I drove out to see her in my red Jeep Cherokee after I spotted an ad for beagle puppies in the classifieds. (Like I said, this was a long time ago.) Saidee has an official name — Legacy Lady Saidee, which follows the street name+first name naming custom of her show dog father, Copper Mountain Cody.

Saidee in 1998, when we first brought her home.

Saidee in 1998, when we first brought her home.

At the time I was 16 and applying for colleges as a high school junior. I wanted my dog-loving mom to have a surrogate daughter since I knew I would be moving away. We chose to spell her name “Saidee” because my mom didn’t want the word “sad” anywhere in her name. When she joined us, she was so small she could burrow into my running shoe.

Up until the end, burrowing was a beloved pastime for her. Saidee didn’t bark or bay — odd for a beagle — but she loved to sleep completely under the covers after spending several minutes finding just the right cushion level. She cuddled close to humans, covering them with kisses, spooned with the cats, but was snooty about other dogs. True to her breed, her ultimate favorite activity is eating. Anytime my mom is cooking in the kitchen, Saidee is circling her feet, hoping for a snack to fall from the sky. And that nose of hers could suss out a morsel of food half a mile away. (Which might be why she ran away so many times, always to return somehow.)

She’s my mom’s dog but since we are a family that’s often on the move, Saidee has taken countless flights and road trips and lived with each of us Hu family members at various points in her long life. She joined us when we were all together in Dallas. She lived with Roger when he was at school in Arizona. She lived with Dad in St. Louis when mom’s job pulled her to Taiwan. In 2007, she moved in with Matty and me in Austin, and later, she moved with us to DC.

Saidee checking out the monuments with us in 2011, the year we moved to DC.

Saidee checking out the monuments with us in 2011, the year we moved to DC.

In her 17 years, she’s made many friends, put up with four different cats, survived a battle with skin cancer, briefly got a new identity, seen the American West and the Appalachian Mountains and despite deafness and blindness in her old age, she even managed a final journey with us — across the Pacific, to Seoul.

When I got Saidee, I was only a girl. Now I am a woman with two girls of my own. I always knew that I’d outlive her — and if we were lucky, that all of her Hu humans would — but I kept delaying the thought, since she’s stayed with us so long. But this week, Saidee did something that she’s never done in her life. She stopped eating. Dementia drives her to walk in circles or face a corner without explanation. I know it’s not long now.

I’ll never be able to repay Saidee for her friendship and her love. Thank you, Saidee Hu, for your insatiable hunger, for food, and for life. For teaching me about loyalty, about growing up, and growing older. For bringing us such joy.

The writer Zadie Smith, reflecting on joy, offered as an example the bonds between humans and our animals. She wrote that relationships with animals are intensified because of their guaranteed finitude.

“You hope to leave this world before your child. You are quite certain your dog will leave before you do. Joy is such a human madness,” she wrote.

September 2012, when Eva was born.

September 2012, when Eva was born.

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Can’t stop, won’t stop grooving

Eva at three.

Eva at three.

Happy 3rd Birthday to my pretty young thing, the baby who blasted into the world and made me a momma.

In the year since her last birthday, Eva has had to leave the only home she knew and move to the other side of the planet, start at three different schools, adapt to a foreign country, say goodbye to her nanny and become a big sister. She’s done it all with joy and pluck, and the giant smile that melts me every time.

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That Time We Had A Baby In South Korea

Early Thursday morning, I awoke suspecting something was … off. It was exactly a week before Hu-Stiles #2: Electric Boogaloo’s due date, and my inability to go back to sleep indicated maybe I was in labor. When actual contractions came on around 4am (just like with Eva), I called my mom, who wasn’t supposed to arrive from Taipei until Saturday, and told her I wanted her to get on a plane ASAP. Spouse Stiles started his husband-coaching and labor was ON, man. Contractions were getting moderate, but nothing I couldn’t handle while also getting Eva ready for school.

By about 8am, things were getting uncomfortable, and my Korean birthing center’s midwife wanted us to go ahead and go in because second babies tend to come faster (Teaser: This was NOT the case for me). We dropped Eva off at school along with my Dad, who is town for babysitting help, so he could take charge of picking her up later.

Now that we are home as a family of four, I can blog about the experience!

A Birth in Korea: Stray Observations

We chose Mediflower, a natural birthing center in Seoul’s Gangnam district, because I like things as un-medicalized as possible and Eva was born without any pain interventions to great results for mom/baby, so we wanted a repeat experience, if possible. Medical interventions during labor & delivery actually tend to be high in South Korea, which has a higher C-section rate than the U.S., even. So we really had to find a place that wasn’t going to take the control of the birth out of my hands.

That said, the experience wasn’t completely Western.

Take off your shoes. The center makes you take off your shoes, like any Korean home, upon entrance. They offer a wide array of slippers at the center entrance but each labor and delivery room had a slipper rack, too.

The slipper rack in our labor and delivery room.

The slipper rack in our labor and delivery room.

There’s an obsessive focus on meal time and meals. (This is not a complaint.) My midwife Suyeon, or “Su,” checked us in and immediately presented us a menu for lunch, even though I was already six centimeters dilated. If you’ve given birth in an American hospital, that is not a point they let you chow down, if they let you eat at all. You can choose Western style meals or the Korean meals, which feature lots of banchan and some sort of main soup, stew or noodle dish. My spouse Stiles chose Korean. I went with a cheeseburger, which I had to eat between contractions and just after laboring in the tub for awhile.

Lunchtime during labor! Cheeseburger between contractions.

Lunchtime during labor! Cheeseburger between contractions.

Koreans believe Miyeokguk is the elixir of life. At the hospital/birthing center, Miyeokguk is available at every meal. It is seaweed soup, and Korean moms who abide by the traditional “confinement month” or “sitting month” after having a baby basically have to eat this every day, nonstop, to help in recovery and to get milk flowing for baby. Seaweed is an alkaline food which helps with pH balance and it’s full of iodine, which the Koreans say you need for getting your lady parts healed. I like it well enough, but I can see how you could easily get sick of it.

As in any part of the world, labor and delivery is not a walk in the park. I just had to accept that this was going to be a long day, and that contractions get more painful and intense and the breaks in between them get shorter until you face the daunting part of pushing out a small human. At one point between contractions I tried bouncing on the ol’ ab ball and this started an impromptu singing of R. Kelly’s “Ignition Remix” (key part includes ‘Bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce bounce’). This was fun until it got a contraction going again. I knew Matty was being especially forgiving while I was in labor because he usually doesn’t ever let me sing in front of him, ESPECIALLY not Ignition Remix.

The shorter rope can be lowered to your preference.

The shorter rope can be lowered to your preference.

The tub and rope setup was pretty handy. Every two rooms share a water birthing tub with these 50 Shades of Gray-looking ropes to hang onto. You can dim the lights and work your way through the contractions, or even deliver in the tub. I just used the tub to get through contractions and got in and out of it a few times during labor day. It felt nice but I wanted to move around too much to stay in there for baby.

My mom made it before the typhoon. Mom wasn’t scheduled to arrive until Saturday, but I didn’t think I could go through with the pain of delivering a baby naturally without my mom being with me for the birth. She got on one of the only flights from Taipei to Seoul left (and among the last before they started canceling them in anticipation of Typhoon Chanhom), and made it to the birthing center with TWENTY MINUTES to spare. I was pushing, despairing and at the ultimate nadir of the labor process by the time she got there. It’s pretty amazing that the baby took her sweet time and didn’t make her appearance until her Oma (grandma) was by my side.

After the hospital staff encouraged me to eat dinner (BECAUSE OF COURSE THEY DID), Isabel arrived at 7:12pm Thursday night at a healthy 8lbs, 4oz and 21 inches long. I shared a quick pic on social media, returned some emails and then went to bed for the night. Mom roomed-in with us so she did the overnight rocking and diaper changing when Isa fussed and I nursed the baby a few times while half-asleep.

Isabel made it! This is before she was even wiped off, so uh, sorry she looks kinda gross.

Isabel made it! This is before she was even wiped off, so uh, sorry she looks kinda gross.

The next morning I awoke to a living nightmare that was also hilarious. Remember how the water birthing tub is shared between two rooms? A laboring mom checked in next door while we were sleeping. I awoke Friday to the sound of what I thought was a slaughterhouse, but really, it was just the final moments of a water birth. Seriously, it was like the cows in Fast Food Nation. Mom and I started cracking up just hearing this ordeal because we really thought this woman was not going to survive, much less deliver a baby. I was flooded with memories of delivering Isa the night before and I shuddered at the thought. After a few really awkward and terrifying moments only HEARING what was behind door #2, we heard a baby crying. She did it!*

The lactation consultant was so pro that she seemed like a North Korean Olympics Coach. Before checking out, Isa got her first bath and I got a lactation consultation from an elite North Korean soldier. I mean, a South Korean lactation specialist. She was a bigger-framed lady, tough and stern and scary with her style. She could only coach me through a translator so we went through this elaborate dance of her jerking me around on the bed and squeezing my boobs and contorting the baby’s mouth and jaw to show me the ultimate positions for breast feeding. I was so bewildered that I’m not sure I got much out of it. But baby seems to be eating enough, so far. Her older sister loves her.

Eva and Isa's first photo together.

Eva and Isa’s first photo together.

Isa got two birth certificates, one in each language. Next week she must go to the U.S. Embassy to declare herself as a U.S. citizen born abroad and to get her passport. The photo will be good for five years, which is going to be pretty funny.

*My mom later tried to tell me, in the nicest way possible, that if I thought the woman-next-door sounded bleak, that I sounded way scarier while delivering Isabel. I hope that’s not true…

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Roger Gifs, Day 3: Jubilation On The Water

I’m not really sure what’s going on here. But it’s probably not the only one I am going to share from Roger’s stand-up rafting on some piranha pond.

Roger on some sort of standup raft in a pond.

Roger on some sort of standup raft in a pond.

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Roger Gifs, Day 2: Roger Wears Suits On Long Flights

For the latest in my series poking fun at my little brother (but also not-so-secretly being jealous at his lifestyle), I chose a clip of Roger flying to Indonesia with a camera crew in tow. He seems to lounge and sleep with his bespoke suit on. This seems crazy to us lay people, but it’s become a joke in our family that every time we pick up Roger at the airport, even if it’s a flight from Beijing to Washington, he comes off the plane in a suit.

Those noodles look good, actually.

Those noodles look good, actually.

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Introducing Roger Gifs!

Roger Gif 1: I am Roger

Roger Gif 1: I am Roger

The most random and unintentionally amusing person I know is my little brother, Roger Hu. He’s also an expat in East Asia, working as the CEO of a tech startup he founded in China, TeeKart. It’s like Open Table but for booking golf tee times.

TeeKart is partnered with golf resorts in China, Hong Kong and Indonesia, and for some reason he got asked to host a handful of marketing vids to introduce the Indonesian courses he works with. The videos are ridiculous.

THIS IS GREAT NEWS FOR ME, because now I am going to start making a series of “ROGER GIFS!” This is “Roger Gif 1: I am Roger.”

These are going to get more insane, I promise.

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Preparing For The Cross-Planet Move

The view from my packing position.

The view from my packing position.

So between the last time I blogged and tonight, I was in Cancun with the besties, many of whom were part of The Great Sucia Treinta Cumpleanos Extravaganza, in which Terp was briefly detained by Costa Rican authorities.

Maybe I will get to sharing the photos from that time (which was followed by a terrible bout of Montezuma’s revenge — what a crisis), but tonight I was just feeling reflective after a day of packing for 2015 Cross-Planet Move: Storage, Part A.

In order to move some clutter out of my house, I’ve decided just to call movers over tomorrow and take away as much nonsense as possible so the house can be shown for potential renters. We spent the day packing up mementos, books and a lot of things that were frankly already mostly packed from the last move and left untouched for the last three years.

Among the items, I found the “yearbook” my South Carolina TV news colleagues signed for me when I moved away in 2006. It’s filled with hilarious memories, some of which I’d forgotten. JL‘s was probably my favorite, and amazingly, all true:

All of this happened between 2005 and 2006. Because South Carolina.

All of this happened between 2005 and 2006. Because South Carolina.

Moving always makes me feel a little wistful. This is my seventh move since graduating from college, not counting this summer, when I helped move all my childhood things from a childhood home, and I seem to have more crap with each move. I love it when old mementos (like above) pop up but it all reminds me of something Chuck Klosterman wrote in Killing Yourself to Live:

“When you start thinking about what your life was like 10 years ago — and not in general terms, but in highly specific detail — it’s disturbing to realize how certain elements of your being are completely dead. They die long before you do. It’s astonishing to consider all the things from your past that used to happen all the time but (a) never happen anymore and (b) never even cross your mind.”

So it’s onward, with the 2015 version of me. I’m definitely less reckless than I used to be (but not so conscientious that I don’t get my purse stolen from my unlocked car as we saw two weeks ago).

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Early Losses

My first miscarriage happened in January. I began to fear it just a day after learning I was pregnant. I went to the doctor and at six weeks, they saw a gestational sac on the ultrasound with nothing inside it. (There should have been an embryo there.) The next week, when they checked again, the sac had shrunk. I was diagnosed with a “missed miscarriage.” The remnants of fetus-that-never-was eventually left my womb on Chinese New Year.

My next miscarriage happened in late June, while I was on stage, speaking to a few hundred young people gathered for a Millennial convention in Chicago. (No, really, it is called Millennial Convention). I knew it was going to happen. Two weeks earlier, a scan showed a heart that beat too slow for a six week-old fetus. The clinical name for that is a “threatened abortion.” I read every study on heart rates at 90 bpm for tiny embryos, and science indicated that that pregnancy would be lost, too.

Clinically, they don’t diagnose you with recurrent pregnancy loss until you’ve suffered three consecutive miscarriages. That’s because the changes of miscarriage are so big (anywhere between 20 to 30 percent) that it’s entirely likely you lose two just due to random chance. As any betting person knows, it IS possible to roll two sevens in a row, even though it’s unlikely.

But I look for answers for a living. So I went and got tested — blood and hormone tests, chromosome tests, thyroid tests, and even a dye injected in my uterus to see whether my system had structural deficiencies. They all turned up exactly what my doctor suspected — nothing. System was sound, all my hormone levels in perfect ranges. My uterus is “beautiful,” the doc said. (Weirdest compliment, I know.)

I write about this because it’s part of my nature to share, but also because I don’t want anyone else who goes through pregnancy loss to feel ashamed about it. So many women suffer this sorrow silently, and don’t have to. The programmer Marco Arment reminded me powerfully in November, in writing about his wife’s 21-week pregnancy loss, that giving a voice to layered and varied and painful experiences frees us all.

I’m around if you, God forbid, go through something like this and want to talk. As Emily Bazelon wrote after miscarrying twins in 2003, “Shouldn’t we be talking openly about this much more often, so that we’re better prepared for the grief when it hits us?” I took some advice I read in that discussion: I came to think about my unborn babies as benevolent beings out there somewhere, tied to Matty and me, if only in memory.

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